Alumni Spotlights

Dr. Paul Harrigan, '97: Serving Those Who Served

March 30, 2012 by Lisa M. McMahon, MA'09

Listening to Dr. Paul Harrigan, '97, speak, one immediately gets the sense that he is a warm, compassionate man. He is quick to laugh, and uses adjectives like wonderful, great, nice, and sweet to describe the people he's known. As he discusses his work as team leader and director of the Buffalo Vet Center, that impression only grows stronger. And you know that his life's path has taken him exactly where he was meant to be.

Paul grew up in Lewiston, N.Y., the youngest child of parents he describes as “real hardworking folks.” His dad was a union bricklayer, his mom a telephone operator. As a child, Paul spent a lot of time with his grandfather, who instilled in his grandson a love of history and an appreciation for veterans.

“I remember him hanging around with his WWII buddies when I was a kid and how he'd get dramatic when he told their stories,” Paul says.

A self-described average student, Paul briefly considered attending college after graduating from Lewiston-Porter High School, where he participated in Model UN and was in the Key Club. But he knew money was tight and none of the college programs really appealed to him. Influenced by his interest in history, the veterans' stories he had heard as a youth, and his brother, who was serving in the U.S. Navy at the time, Paul decided to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps during his senior year.

Paul spent the next four years in the Marines, a tour of duty that included a deployment with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit to evacuate embassies in Liberia, which was in the midst of a civil war at the time. This experience had a profound effect on him. “I remember looking out from the ship at the ocean and deciding that, no matter what I did with my life, there would be a humanistic element to it,” he says. He was just 21 at the time.

When his tour was over, Paul was ready to give college a try. He completed an associate's degree at Niagara County Community College (where one of his professors, a practicing psychologist, became a mentor to him and inspired him to pursue a career in psychology) and attended the University at Buffalo before transferring to Niagara University's psychology program on a full-tuition scholarship. Here, professors including Dr. Peter Butera, Dr. Timothy Osberg and Dr. Burt Thompson encouraged him to take on work in research and assessment, and convinced him to continue his education after earning his bachelor's degree. So Paul headed for New York City to pursue a master's degree in counseling at Columbia University, and then to Florida to pursue a doctorate at the University of Miami. His fieldwork centered on serving veterans, first at the Miami Vet Center and then at the veterans hospital there.

With this experience under his belt, Paul returned to New York state to work at a home-based primary care program at the VA Medical Center in Bath. He then took a job at the VA Center in Batavia, working with veterans who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. In April of last year, he accepted the position of team leader at the Buffalo Vet Center, joining what he calls “a team of heroes,” most of whom are overseas veterans themselves. Together, they provide nonmedical counseling and assistance to veterans and their family members who are experiencing problems and issues related to active military service in a war zone or in the course of deployment during war.

“This all goes back to my granddad,” Paul says. Because of him, “I always had this connection with the vets, and I'm proud to be in a position now to help them. It's just a real pleasure.”

Paul's days are full, and he balances the administrative responsibilities of his position and one-on-one counseling sessions with the veterans. It's a challenging, yet rewarding job.

“When you're side by side with someone and you see he's not making the right choices yet, you hang in there knowing they're doing the best they can, and that can take time and patience and understanding and a lot of acceptance,” Paul says. “But to be there, to help those who fought for the peace actually have peace in their lives, is just a wonderful experience. It's such an honor to do this.”